Would you study for a photography degree later in life?

Would you study for a photography degree later in life? It’s an interesting question and in today’s newsletter I speak to three of my workshop students who have done just that. It’s something I have always recommended people consider; it’s not cheap and it’s not easy but it can be an enlightening and game-changing experience – whether it’s a street photography degree or something more general. Here’s what Neil, Ian and Pete have to say about their recent or current academic journeys:

Q1: What course are you doing – and where?

NEIL GOODWIN: I started the MA in Photography at Falmouth University in May 2019 – see details here. It’s a part-time, online course and it completes in April this year by submission of a major photography project and a critical review of my own practice.

IAN SHARP: I am currently studying for a BA(Hons) in Photography with the British Academy of Photography (BAPH). I am studying online to fit my other interests in life, though it can also be done on-site, or via live video link. The online course is flexible in that it can take between three and six years depending on how many hours I want to put in. The first two years follow the HNC/HND syllabus, with the third year in conjunction with the University of Chester. 

PETE JOUSIFFE: I completed a BA(Hons) Degree in Photography at the University of Northampton in the summer of 2020 and started an MA in History of Art (Modern & Contemporary) at the University of York, part-time, in the autumn of 2021.  As I was unsure what to expect from Higher Education (HE) I decided to take the higher National Certificate / Diploma (HNC/D – levels 4 & 5) route, followed by a Top-Up year at BA(Hons) (level 6), rather than committing to a three-year degree.  This gave me the flexibility to ‘quit’ after a year if I decided it wasn’t for me.  However, I did follow the process through to completion albeit taking a year off between HND and the Top-up year.

Q2: What motivated or inspired you to do a photography degree relatively late in life?

NEIL GOODWIN: I’ve been winding down from work for some time and I wanted something to replace the routine of work, albeit on a part time basis; and as I joke, to stop me lazing around in retirement gaining even more weight! 

IAN SHARP: Late in life? I am 55 so hope not 😊. I had the opportunity to take early retirement, and as my partner will be working for some years yet as she has recently started a second career I need something which is both a challenge and an interest. I have always taken photographs, but I think those of two years ago are no better than those from twenty years back. Now I am learning new techniques, particularly on the creative side.

PETE JOUSIFFE: Back in 2012-14, initially unbeknownst to me, the ‘black dog’ had started to visit, and his presence was becoming more and more debilitating. My employers eventually decided they didn’t like having ‘pets’ around the office and so offered me early retirement on ill health grounds; I was 56. As we all know we need to keep both physically and mentally active especially in circumstances like mine, so I looked for something that would check both boxes. Photography had been a great help to me during the dark times and so I looked at the options for completing a ‘formal’ course. The senior photography lecturer at Tresham College was very supportive and encouraging; a brief interview and discussion over my portfolio and I was in! Being under 60 years young was a great advantage as I have been able to claim the full whack of student finance loans to pay for all tuition fees and to help with living costs. 

Q3: How are you finding the course?

NEIL GOODWIN: The Falmouth course is well organised for online learning with access to materials, the university library, academics and tutors. It’s proper, rigorous academic study with numerous modules and ongoing assessment comprising creating images, creating a critical review journal and writing, often applying theory in a self-critical review of one’s own photography practice, which is a core component of the course. As time goes on, you’re exposed to more and more thinking, as well as a range of practitioners so your critical thinking, especially of your own practice, develops.   

I’ve always been used to academic study and so academic reading and distilling research is not new to me. The main challenge has been the photography side of the course, learning to develop my composition, apply concepts like ambiguity and framing, etc. I laughingly refer to this as trying to discover the artistic side of my brain, especially after a long career in management and ‘non-artistic’ academia!

I think people on the course generally fall into one of two broad camps – those who find the photography more of a challenge and those who find the academic reading and writing more of a challenge. But there’s a lot of personal tutor support and students form WhatsApp and teams’ groups for keeping in touch and supporting with each other.

IAN SHARP: It’s great to be able to do something like this purely because I want to – for its’ own sake. Whilst I am doing quite well in terms of feedback, I am measuring success in terms of enjoyment and personal satisfaction in how I am progressing in my photography.  I fully recommend BAPH, I spent considerable time investigating options and found a number of other courses would be too “arty” and theoretical, with very little practical content. BAPH is the right balance between the two for me. The feedback to assignments is positive, constructive and prompt, and I have the opportunity to speak with a tutor should I ever need it (and I haven’t so far). We’ve set up a WhatsApp group for those who started at a similar time, plus there are various opportunities available through BAPH to create a sense of community.

PETE JOUSIFFE: They turned into three of the most stimulating years of my life; the old saying “you get out what you put in” was very true in my case.  I immersed myself in the course, even when it was areas that I found less interesting or that I was already totally au fait with, I still put in 100%, well 95%ish.  I would often travel quite long distances to complete an assignment; Scotland, all over England, Northern Ireland, and Berlin. Ok I was lucky in that I had the financial means to invest, whereas some of my younger fellow students were more restricted to nearer to home or the studio. 

Initially the course was a shock to the system; having been out of civilian education for some 40 years, I had to get my head round exactly what the requirements were for a specific Unit, what the markers were looking for and what needed to be included in the course work, called a ‘sketchbook’. But once I had that clear I was away and running.  As it turned out I became more interested in the academic requirements of the course rather than the practical side.  My professional background was in analysis and research and as such I found the dissertation and essay writing very stimulating; I tackled everything from the inappropriateness or not of certain subject matter (children and nudity in photography) to the legal aspects of taking photographs (very pertinent to Street) and to the study of ‘Dark Tourism’.

Q4: Are there any specific topics you’ll be focusing on?

NEIL GOODWIN: It’s a general course covering a range of photographic and related issues, and the only thing to decide is what your major project will be for the final submission at the end of the last six months module during which you largely work on your own. Not everybody is clear about their project at the start of the course, which is fine as long as they decide by the final module.

I have always been clear about wanting to undertake a social documentary on people living alone and loneliness, which is both a national and international social phenomenon. The project has introduced me to concepts such as collaboration and participation in photography. I’m not only photographing them in the context of their own homes but also augmenting the images with their summary life stories. I’ll be exhibiting the work locally in March, printing a zine and hopefully a photobook later in the year. It’s the sort of project I’ll continue after completion of the MA. You can see a sample of my images here.

IAN SHARP: The learning is through practical exercises to re-enforce the theory, the early ones being still life and then to create an environment portrait. The one I have just completed and really enjoyed was to develop an album/CD cover photograph – the theoretical part was deciding on genre, researching it and creating a brief, then the practical part was taking the image and post processing to a format suitable to an album cover. I am naturally drawn to a more documentary style, though would like to push myself more on the aesthetic side too. Alongside the degree I have attended four StreetSnappers workshops where I have practiced what I’ve learned with BAPH, and also been able to take into my degree the experience from the workshops – they have complemented each other very well.

PETE JOUSIFFE: I’ve always been a generalist photographer; jack of all trades, master of none you might say.  However, as part of the final year we were expected to develop a business plan including website, logo etc. Bear in mind that most of my fellow students wanted to go on to be working photographers, but I didn’t. However, I had to play the game, and as such I developed my photography ‘business’ around the idea that Landscape, Documentary and Travel Photography covered most of my favoured photographic genres.  I find they overlap nicely, and that ‘street’ fits quite nicely in both travel and documentary; you may disagree.   

Q5: What impact will the degree have on your picture-taking?

NEIL GOODWIN: There’s no doubt that the course helps you think more deeply about your own practice, and in my case I have become much more self-critical of my own photography. I now reject many more images that in the past I would have been content with. So, I think that over time I will become a better, all-round photographer – at least in my own eyes.

IAN SHARP: I am now much more aware of what (I think !) is a good image, and why. I am now in a virtuous circle of improvement rather than repeat-repeat-repeat. I can also now appreciate the works of others better, which again helps improve my own picture-taking.

PETE JOUSIFFE: This is very difficult to quantify, but actually very important especially if you are considering splashing the cash on any form of HE; it isn’t cheap! To be honest you can learn the art of picture taking from any number of sources/resources, including the most excellent StreetSnappers; what HE brings to the party is a holistic approach to considering where photography sits with, and amongst, the other arts, historically and contemporaneously, and how to make the most out of your skill to form a successful photography practice. That said, I’ve been lucky to have had some excellent lecturers who have also helped me to develop, and hopefully improve, my picture-taking.   

Q6: How do you plan to use your qualification?

NEIL GOODWIN: Unsurprisingly, a number of students are professional photographers and undertaking the course for business development reasons. That obviously isn’t me and of course, you don’t need a professional qualification to be a better photographer. However, I do believe you need to read and study the practice of other photographers if you want to improve your own practice. In my case, that’s focused a lot on documentary.
I’m having to change my practice anyway, not solely because of the course but because of relocating to the Fife coast in Scotland last January. To travel anywhere for a good day of street photography, to a city or large town for example, requires a bit of planning in advance. For that reason, I see myself becoming more interested in my immediate surroundings and looking for more generic project opportunities. I enjoy documentary work, particularly when people are the subjects, and so I’ll be looking for more opportunities using what I’ve learnt on the course to help me adopt a more professional approach.

However, I’m also part-way through a project photographing takeaways in local towns and villages, in similar style to Ed Ruscha’s straightforward, somewhat deadpan capturing of the everyday, of which his best example is Twentysix Gasoline Stations. In similar vein, and perhaps somewhat strangely, I’m also capturing washing lines as I’m out and about – not without its hazards of course but thankfully I’ve avoided having to trespass and not been challenged yet! But I will always love street and the enjoyment of meeting up with StreetSnapper friends throughout the year, which I’ve managed to do a few times since moving to Scotland.

IAN SHARP: Purely for personal satisfaction. I’ve set up a website  ianphotography.uk  as another learning opportunity to present some of my photographs, but have no intention of any commercial work. I am keen to collaborate with other photographers who have similar interests.

PETE JOUSIFFE: I don’t intend to become a professional photographer and never have. However, throughout the degree process I have learnt so much more about the arts that it has encouraged me to start an MA in history of art; modern and contemporary. I’m studying part-time over two years as this will allow me to also address other commitments. This is purely an academic course so a bit of a challenge in more ways than one; it will culminate in a 15,000-word dissertation which I’m hoping will have a photographic element.  After that, if I pass, who knows… 

Q7: What advice would you give to others who are considering academic study in photography?

NEIL GOODWIN: As photographers know, it’s not essential to have a formal qualification to be a better photographer but if you want a structured approach to studying photography, it’s history, development and current thinking, links to art and philosophy including how people look and analyse images, truth in photography, exposure to a wide range of experience and projects, coupled with ongoing constructive critique and support, then undertaking a course is a good option. It doesn’t have to be an MA either – there are lots of alternatives available. But like all courses of study, it would be disingenuous to say there aren’t ups and downs. Undertaking a part-time course with regular deadlines also has the additional challenge of fitting it around other commitments, which can be daunting. It would be dishonest of me to say there haven’t been times when I asked myself why I started the course, but I’m always reinvigorated when I meet the people participating in my project. It’s a privilege documenting their stories and being invited into their homes to photograph them and above all else, I owe it to them to present their stories as best I can.

IAN SHARP: Thoroughly research the degree course before you sign up. I’ve met a number of people who did not realise until too late that their course contains a fair amount of academic work, and some courses provide very little opportunity to use a camera. BAPH has a strong practical element, and learning through doing that works for me, though there is still a significant academic element. I’d also suggest if fairly new to photography doing the Open University short course, TG089, which lasts ten weeks and teaches the basics of using a camera. Going from nothing to a degree has proven onerous for some.

PETE JOUSIFFE:

  1. Really think hard about what it is that you want to get out of the course.If it is simply to improve your photography, then maybe HE isn’t for you.There are plenty of non-academic routes you could investigate.
  2. If you are not keen on essay writing or academic research, then a full BA is not for you. Or if you are not interested in developing a ‘brand’, website, business cards etc. then again this area is probably not of interest to you.
  3. When they say fulltime that doesn’t just mean the amount of time you spend at Uni, maybe 2-3 days per week; my lecturer estimated that we should be spending 40 hours a week in studying! I didn’t, but you get the gist.
  4. Look carefully at the cost, anywhere between 6-10K per year in tuition fees alone.
  5. If you do embark on a full-time degree, then go with an open mind.Take advantage of everything that is on offer and be prepared to contribute. Don’t let the poor attitude of some younger students influence you. Learn from the younger ones; many have fabulous ideas and are very creative.
  6. Work hard and enjoy!!!!
  7. If anyone would like to see an example of my coursework photography, you can see a Street Photography project here:

I’m very grateful to Neil, Ian and Pete for sharing their experiences with us. If you are interested in pursuing the academic route and need advice, please feel free to get in touch and I’ll happily offer some advice.

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